On Wednesday afternoon, America suffered yet another deadly mass shooting, this time in San Bernardino, California. This has renewed a familiar conversation. What, if anything, can possibly be done to prevent these acts of mass murder? And what, if anything, can a person do to reduce gun violence? It's an understandable impulse, part of what makes for empathetic, caring people. You see others suffering and losing their lives in such hideous ways, and you want to figure out a way to help. So right now, it's time for you to do one thing: Make gun control a priority voting issue.
It's the same conversation that's emerged so many times in recent years — after Sandy Hook, Aurora, Isla Vista, Roseburg, Colorado Springs, and now San Bernardino. And at the same time, the frustrations and pitfalls are obvious and disillusioning. The political system seems seized with inaction, and no matter how many shocking acts of violence take place, nothing seems to break the gridlock.
According to the Mass Shooting Tracker, which defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are targeted, the events in San Bernardino on Wednesday would be the 355th one in 2015. That's a staggering average of more than one incident per day. And yet the political system seems utterly unable to even have good-faith discussions about gun reform. So what can you do?
Sad to say, it doesn't seem like there's a simple or tidy answer. When tens of thousands of Americans losing their lives to gun violence every year (whether through homicides, suicides, or accidental deaths) can't move the needle, what can? Considering how stagnant our progress is, it's hard to envision what an average person can do. But here are some steps you can take that could actually influence political trends.
- Prioritize and center gun reform foremost among the issues you'll consider come Election Day. You don't have to be a single-issue voter, exactly — if you've got two candidates of roughly equivalent quality on gun reform, all your other considerations should weigh in — but if somebody's platform on guns doesn't stack up, then don't give them your vote. It's up to you to decide what those minimum standards look like.
- This is the hardest part: If there's no candidate in your preferred party who's got a platform on guns worth voting for, then don't vote for any of them. Obviously, this will pose more problems for you if you're, say, a pro-gun-control Republican, since the GOP is deeply hostile to even the most common-sense, legally feasible reforms. But you have to draw the line, because if politicians don't have to fear you staying home on November over gun control, or even crossing party lines to support someone you normally wouldn't, they'll never devote the level of political capital that it'll take to actually get things done.
- Rally your friends, loved ones, or like-minded political allies to do the same thing. Organize protests at candidate events. And if you're a Democrat, that means protesting your own candidates too, to make sure that the issue is centrally framed within the conversation of the campaign. This applies to state, local, and congressional elections.
You might call this the nuclear option, and you'd be right. It's a huge risk to actually withhold your vote over a certain issue, because generally speaking, life seems so much more complicated than that. You'll be sure to get a lot of pushback. Are you really going to not vote for a Democrat? That tacitly aids a Republican taking office. You're going to risk handing over foreign policy, health care, reproductive rights, taxes, the whole deal to a Republican?
And what if you're a Republican who simply can't stomach the staggering extent of America's gun violence problem? You're going to risk another four years of Democratic rule in the White House, all because of one issue out of so many?
If politicians on the left are going to prioritize this fully, and (most critically) if those on the right will ever consider a measure of compromise on guns, then the answer must be yes. If voters aren't willing to say "no" sometimes and demand better, even at risk to themselves, they hand away every inch of their strength and leverage. This isn't only true of gun violence; you could just as easily choose to prioritize reproductive rights, or racial justice, or economic justice. But one thing's for sure: The "lesser of two evils" strategy practically invites candidates to live down their lies, rather than live up to their promises.